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Davidson mayor says Charlotte is calling all the shots on transit — and that needs to change

 Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox
City of Charlotte
Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox

Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox is calling for an overhaul of the Metropolitan Transit Commission — the countywide board that's supposed to set transit policy — because he said the city of Charlotte is ignoring what other municipalities want.

He also said that if the city doesn’t offer meaningful change, he and other Mecklenburg town mayors could take more drastic steps, such as studying how to break apart from the Charlotte Area Transit System.

The dispute stems back to the May 2022 derailment of a Lynx Blue Line train. Though the car didn’t tip over and no one was hurt, the North Carolina Department of Transportation criticized the transit system’s safety and maintenance procedures — and imposed tighter restrictions on CATS going forward.

In March, Knox and his colleagues on the MTC voted unanimously for the city of Charlotte to hire an independent consultant to investigate what went wrong.

But the city of Charlotte said it wasn’t going to do that. Instead, Charlotte asked the Federal Transit Administration to expedite a previously scheduled review.

That angered Knox and other MTC members.

“We voted unanimously for this third-party outside investigation,” Knox said in an interview Thursday. “If they had done that, you and I wouldn’t be talking about this.”

CATS is a city department, reporting to the city manager. But because a half-cent sales tax for transit is levied countywide, the MTC was created nearly 25 years ago to help make transit decisions.

For that quarter of a century, the MTC always supported the city’s plans. But after the city rejected the MTC’s vote this year, Knox and other mayors wondered whether they have any real power and why they even bother meeting. One member asked whether they are just a “rubber stamp” for the city.

Knox said he is frustrated “as to what the city of Charlotte says the rules are.”

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Knox said he wants to change the organization so he and other Mecklenburg mayors have actual power. The original agreement that created the MTC expires next year.

But one problem with changing the organization is that the MTC already has power, at least on paper.

The MTC members are supposed to make big-picture decisions about policy, approve the budget and could even fire the CATS CEO. But as the vote over the investigation showed, the MTC has no effective way of making the city follow its direction when that differs from what the city wants to do.

“All I’m asking for is one town, one vote,” Knox said.

That is the organization of the MTC today. But there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure those votes are listened to.


In an interview, Knox said if the city doesn’t agree to share power, the towns could go to the legislature and ask that the transit sales tax money collected in their towns stay in their towns and not go to CATS.

He said he doesn’t want to do that — but it could give the MTC leverage.

“If Davidson were to secede from the union, our influx of sales and use tax is probably a million and a half dollars. By myself, does that make an impact on the operating budget for CATS? Absolutely not,” Knox said. “But if my partners, Mecklenburg County and the other communities, did that, that makes a difference.”

Even a discussion of secession is a blow to Charlotte, which is trying to build support for a $13.5 billion regional transit plan. The city has been talking about increasing coordination with the surrounding counties, syncing up bus schedules and fare systems, and even creating a regional authority that could jointly fund and manage transit.

Another option: The MTC could go to Raleigh and ask legislators to put its members in full charge of CATS. But that could present numerous problems, such as who would be responsible for debt the city owes on things like buses and rail projects.

Mecklenburg Commissioner and MTC member Leigh Altman said change is needed.

“There is a concern that the way Charlotte is responding to the interlocal agreement really has restricted the voice of the towns in Mecklenburg County that undermines that partnership,” she said. “So that’s the problem we are trying to solve.”

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, who is an MTC member, said she is OK with a review of the MTC’s structure. She did not respond Thursday as to whether she would reconsider the city’s decision not to hire the outside investigator.

The MTC will discuss Knox’s overhaul plan next month.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.